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New Zora Neale Hurston Book Chronicles Last Known Survivor Of Transatlantic Slave Trade

Emma Langdon Roche via the New York Public Library

More than fifty years after her death, a new work by Zora Neale Hurston will hit the presses. Barracoon is her account of the last known survivor of America’s Transatlantic slave trade. The Florida anthropologist and author is known for her celebration of black life and culture in the rural South. This latest manuscript will reinforce that legacy.

Zora Neale Hurston visited the former slave Cudjo Lewis at his home in Alabama in the late 1920s and early 1930s. She heard how he was captured and illegally smuggled out of Benin aboard the Clotilde in 1859, more than fifty years after the country had outlawed the international slave trade. He told her of the barracks slaves were locked in before auction, called barracoons. And she learned about his life as free man in the South, marrying and starting a family, and establishing a town outside of Mobile, known to some as Africatown, to others as Plateau. Descendants of Lewis and other former slaves still live in the area.

Now publisher Harper Collins is making that account public. Valerie Boyd wrote the biography of Hurston Wrapped In Rainbows. She says any new work by the iconic author would be significant. But she says a new slave narrative from the perspective of an elderly man looking back on his life will be groundbreaking for American readers.

"It'll take us back to 1927 and her interviewing him. And then he will take us back even further in his memory as an older man looking back on his life," Boyd said. " So I think it has amazing possibilities in that way. And I hope reading this narrative will help advance the discussion on contemporary America and how far we've come and how far we've yet to go."

Hurston scholar Anna Lillios of the University of Central Florida's English Department says the book will give audiences new insight into the author's work and her views on slavery. Hurston had previously helped collect oral histories from former slaves as part of the Federal Writers' Project under the New Deal.

“I think Hurston is continually being reinterpreted by each generation and it’s so exciting,” Lillios said. “Her interest in race and slavery, this should provide new light on that subject.”

"If the book is taken seriously that means the whole issue of slavery will be discussed. The legitimacy of enslaved people will be discussed."

Lillios says Barracoon may illuminate a pivotal time in Hurston's life, as she was stepping away from her anthropological work and coming into her own as a writer.

"It was written during a period of her life that was full of turmoil and uncertainty. It was the early 30s, the time of the Great Depression. And she was searching for a way to make her presence known in the literary world," Lillios said.

Valerie Boyd says the book will illuminate a young Hurston as she was developing her literary voice.

"I think people will see glimpses of the Hurston that we know through her later, more acclaimed work, like Their Eyes Were Watching God," Boyd said.

Credit Florida Memory / https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/33048
Florida anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston.

Barracoon was not Hurston's only account of Cudjo Lewis. In 1927, she published "Cudjo's Own Story Of The Last American Slaver" which was later determined to be largely plagiarized. Returning to Africatown and penning Barracoon was an opportunity for Hurston to redeem herself. 

The book was never published in her lifetime. But Marita Golden says it will strike a chord with modern audiences. She co-founded the Zora Neale Hurston / Richard Wright Foundation, which supports and honors black writers.

“She is recognized as one of America’s greatest writers. And that alone will pave the way for the book to have a wide audience, for it to be discussed, for it be dissected, for it to be adopted in classes, for it to be taken seriously," Golden said. "And if the book is taken seriously that means the whole issue of slavery will be discussed. The legitimacy of enslaved people will be discussed. We live in a world now where there is a much more receptive context for the book than previously."

Boyd says the timing of the publishing will resonate with Americans who are still reckoning with the legacy of slavery and modern day racial disparities and injustices. She hopes generations growing up in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement may discover or rediscover Hurston's work.

"What does this have to say to us in 2017? 2018?" Boyd asked. "Given the president this country has elected, given the continued turmoil in our country around race and gender and all those issues that matter to Hurston and continue to dominate the national conversation."

"What does this have to say to us in 2017? 2018? Given the president this country has elected? Given the continued turmoil in our country around race and gender?"

Often with posthumously published works, there are ethical questions about the writer's original intent. But Marita Golden says Hurston wanted to see Barracoon published, and would be proud and relieved to finally see it in print.

"I think that she would just be so satisfied that this book is being published now," Golden said.

Hurston died in poverty and obscurity, buried in an unmarked grave later rediscovered by The Color Purple author Alice Walker. Walker and Toni Morrison, two giants of American literature, name Hurston as an influence and an inspiration. Her popular appeal and renown after her death far exceeds what she experienced in her lifetime. This renewed interest in and publishing of her work after her death follows that same trend.

Barracoon will be available in May of 2018.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.